(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with his previous plan to visit N. Korea, Washington's request for amnesty, other details)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Aug. 4 (Yonhap) -- Former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea on Tuesday, a trip apparently aimed at winning the release of two detained American journalists.
Clinton's surprise visit also raised hopes for a breakthrough in the long-stalled nuclear disarmement talks and a momentum for dialogue.
"A little girl presented a bouquet to Bill Clinton," the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported, saying that the country's senior officials, including nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan, greeted the former U.S. leader upon his arrival at the airport.
The brief KCNA report did not give other details, such as Clinton's itinerary or the purpose of his visit.
While both the U.S. and South Korean governments kept mum on his trip, diplomatic sources here said it is intended to bring Laura Ling and Euna Lee back home.
The female reporters from the San Francisco-based media group Current TV -- co-founded by Al Gore, who was Clinton's vice president -- were arrested on March 17 on the North Korea-China border while reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished North. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by the North on charges of illegal entry and "hostile acts."
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton's wife, urged Pyongyang to grant amnesty to the reporters, a gesture that heralded a compromise on how to free them.
The sources said the North will hand them over to Clinton as related talks have effectively been completed through Pyongyang's diplomatic mission to the U.N., known as "the New York channel."
The former U.S. president, whose administration had engaged in extensive negotiations with Pyongyang, is expected to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il later Tuesday and fly out of the country as early as Wednesday, according to one of the sources.
The U.S. reportedly planned to send Gore as a special envoy but the North rejected the offer, apparently in hopes that Washington would send a top-level government official authorized to discuss pending political issues.
The Obama administration, however, has maintained that it will not link the journalists' detention with the nuclear issue. Clinton is apparently a compromise choice, saving face for both sides.
Another source said that Clinton is accompanied by civilians from his foundation, not U.S. government officials.
Shortly after his retirement in 2001, the former president established the "William J. Clinton Foundation," with the stated mission of strengthening people's capacity to meet the challenges of global interdependence.
The North withdrew from the six-party talks after firing a long-range rocket in April and conducting a second nuclear test the following month. In response to those provocations, the international community imposed stiff sanctions on North Korea through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.
In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made a surprise visit to Pyongyang to negotiate a temporary resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Going on a blueprint drawn up by William Perry, the U.S. point man on North Korea at the time, the Clinton administration negotiated a deal with Pyongyang that froze North Korea's plutonium production and addressed ways to curb its missile activities.
Madeleine Albright, then U.S. secretary of state, met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang in 2000 following North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok's trip to Washington, during which the two sides produced a joint communique for reconciliation.
Clinton had also planned to visit Pyongyang during his final months in office but had to cancel the trip to take part in a peace initiative in the Middle East.
The former U.S. president's visit to Pyongyang may also have a positive impact on Seoul's efforts to secure the release of a detained South Korean worker and on the future of inter-Korean ties, which have become strained over the past year.
The North has held the 42-year-old South Korean man incommunicado since late March, accusing him of criticizing the communist nation's political system and attempting to persuade a North Korean woman to defect. His whereabouts is unknown to Seoul officials.
It remains unconfirmed whether the South Korean government asked Clinton to raise the issue during his meeting with the North Koreans.
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